Friday, December 28, 2012

Easy, ethical resolutions for 2013

I'm calling these resolutions "easy" because I think they are definitely achievable without sacrificing quality of life. I am already doing several of them and want to continue them in 2013. I have blogged about some previously; I will blog about the others during 2013.

1. Donate greater than 5% of my income to humanitarian charities, as guided by The Life You Can Save.

2. Follow Michael Pollan's Food Rules. (N.B. One of the rules is to "break the rules once in a while.")

3. Purchase and eat only free-range meat, increase meat-free days to 4 per week and buy from farmers' markets as much as possible. (As per Michael Pollan's food rules, "treat meat as a flavouring or special occasion food.")

4. Continue to use the Shop Ethical! app to guide supermarket purchases (and remember to take those reusable grocery bags).

5. Have old clothes and shoes mended and re-soled, instead of throwing them away. If unable to be mended or donated, use old clothes as rags. If buying clothes (or other textiles), buy only second-hand, fair trade or ethically-made products and buy less overall. Host a Clothes Swap Party.

6. Participate in at least a couple of my own "Buy Nothing New" months.

7. Don't buy bottled water.

8. Increase the amount of regular exercise that I do. (You may wonder how this is an ethical resolution. It's probably the best thing most people can do for their physical and mental health, which increases their chance of being a productive member of society for as long as possible, and reduces present and future burden on the health system.) Sleep enough every night.

9. Get a bicycle and start cycling for transport, fun and health; continue to use public transport and walk as well.

10. Give away at least seven items per week.

11. Further reduce electricity and water consumption.

12. Successfully grow at least one plant on my balcony, preferably edible!

13. Continue blogging here at least once per fortnight and engaging with like-minded people.

What are your resolutions for 2013? Can you suggest others I can add to my list?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Socks and jocks

Underwear is a popular Christmas stocking filler in Australia so I thought I'd take this opportunity to post about ethical underwear choices (socks, jocks, bras and tights). Underwear is one item I don't want to buy "vintage" and am not willing to forgo completely.

This cheeky (sorry, pun) "More Than Pretty Knickers" video briefly (oops, another pun) points out some of the environmental and human costs of the production of underwear.

There is further explanation here of the facts quoted in the video. I'm not alone in the struggle to find ethically made underwear - I discovered great posts on the topic by Adventures Undressed and Life of a Vegetarian Girl (each with a list of links).

With my non-existent sewing skills, I'm unlikely to make any underwear that's wearable and does its job without bulging (and not in a good way). I discovered a website for a bespoke bra-maker in Brisbane (Linda's Lingerie) - I wonder if I could find the same in Perth? I have heard that making bras, particularly those with under-wires, is a specialised and difficult skill. If you are more sartorially savvy than me, here are instructions for making underpants from old t-shirts.

I am trying to extend the lifespan of my delicates by handwashing and mending where possible - and I reuse my holey (cleaned!) undies as rags for cleaning the bathroom. But what to do when my current batch of smalls has had its day? Finding ethically made underwear is far more difficult than finding ethically made clothes. Bras (especially with under-wires) are more difficult than undies and socks.

There are a number of producers making socks and jocks (and singlets and sleepwear) from fabrics with a lighter (but not invisible) ecological footprint than traditional cotton and nylon, such as organic cotton and bamboo. Some are fair trade. You can find them easily by searching for "ethical underwear Australia". Wool socks keep feet warm wet or dry, require less frequent washing and will biodegrade if you bury them in the garden once you're done with them. My friend works for NZ merino brand Icebreaker and vouches for their ethical standards (and his wife loves Icebreaker undies!), although I've not tried them myself.

Pants to Poverty (their name is a pun - my kind of brand) is a British pants company that, according to their website, source their organic cotton directly from farmers in India and produce in a carbon neutral factory that pays living wages to its Indian garment workers. There are a few online stockists in Australia including Etiko and The New InternationalistWho Made Your Pants? is an English worker cooperative (mainly of refugee women) making underpants from fabric that would otherwise end up in waste. I was really captured by their business model (after discovering them through Twitter).

I've struggled to find Australian-made underwear since Bonds sent their production offshore. Brisbane-based Nico Underwear produces (ethically, in Australia) pretty women's underwear that's available in a few stores in Brisbane and online. I won some of their underwear once and while it's gorgeous, it far too big for me because I chose the sizes based on my (obviously poorly self-measured) measurements. Still they're worth another try, especially if you're in Brisbane and can try them in person. With a bit of online searching, I just found Tuffys & Tuffetts, another Australian-made underwear producer (including bras with under-wires!). However, they don't seem to have any bricks and mortar stockists so I'm left with the same concern about ill-fitting bras and VPLs.

For seriously sexy, Melbourne-made lingerie, Hopeless looks like the way to go. They have a gorgeous blog and are the most only appealing of the Aussie underwear producers I found via an etsy search.

As I sit here sweating on the couch on a 39 Celcius Christmas day, it's hard to think about wearing tights. However, I thought I'd end by mentioning Tightology. Their lovely hosiery is Australian-made, from "organic cotton, bamboo and wool blend using 100% recycled paper packaging and environmental inks for printing." They have many stockists, including several in Perth!

I would love to hear others' suggestions for ethical underwear choices. Does anyone know of a store in Perth selling Australian-made underwear? Does anyone know of a bespoke bra-maker in Perth? If you do, please be generous and share the details - it's Christmas after all.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Buying Christmas gifts? My gift guide.

I have decided to throw in my 2 cents (more like $200, at current Perth prices) with a Christmas gift guide. There's a wealth of links here about how to simplify your Christmas, including Zen Habits' Case Against Buying Christmas Presents. A sobering statistic from The Life You Can Save newsletter:

"According to the National Retail Foundation, last year, $563 billion dollars were spent just in the U.S. during the holidays in 2011. To put that in perspective, according to a UN report, the cost of reducing by half the proportion of the world’s population in extreme poverty will be $189 billion dollars in 2015."

However, if you are going to buy gifts (as I am), my first suggestion would be to make a charitable donation on behalf of the recipient - for example, Oxfam Unwrapped's Pile of Poo (or any of their other excellent gifts for the less faecally-inclined). As well as helping Oxfam's humanitarian projects, you can claim the donation as a tax deduction! Win-win.

If your recipient just wouldn't be satisfied with a donation, think about gifting an experience. Depending on your budget, options include a holiday, birdwatching, a voucher for a local independent restaurant, some babysitting or a cooking class. A voucher for shoe repair or a tailor would allow them to rejuvenate old shoes and clothes, to stop them going to landfill.

If you must give a more tangible gift, keep in mind the resources (environmental and human) that went into producing the gift. Fair trade items tick the box here (try the Oxfam shop or if in Perth, Fair Go Trading in Northbridge). If you're buying for a sweet tooth, there's a lot of delicious fair trade chocolate about (Fair Go have a Butter and Sea Salt chocolate that I really want to try - hint to any family or friends reading).

You can also head to local markets for locally produced items. Some of my upcoming favourite Perth holiday markets include Unwrapped Designer Market (Sundays December 9th and 16th in Forrest Place), Subi Farmers Market Annual Christmas Gift Market (Saturday December 8th, 8am to noon) and Illuminites Christmas Festival (Friday December 14th, 5pm to 10pm, Perth Cultural Centre).

Support your independent bookstores by giving books as gifts. Be subversive with beautiful coffee-table books with an underlying message of sustainability. I recommend Kevin McCloud's 43 Principles of Home, Amanda Talbot's Rethink: The Way You Live, Michael Pollan's Food Rules (beautifully illustrated by Maira Kalman) or India Flint's Second Skin.

Some other thoughtful gift guides I recommend are Nicholas D. Kristof's Gifts That Change Lives for the New York Times (charitable donations), GiveWell's Top Charities for the 2012 Giving Season (also donations), Oxfam's Top Ten Gifts (all fair trade) and Sarah Wilson's Christmas Gift Guide.

If none of the above will satisfy, I recommend something from Aesop. Unlike mainstream beauty companies, this fiercely independent Australian brand puts most of its money back into research and development, rather than advertising and promotions. They don't have sales, which is a good indicator that their products don't have ridiculous mark-ups. The products are all made in Australia and they do what they promise on the label, in addition to looking great in the bathroom and smelling divine. They're expensive but they last for months (and then some). As a universally pleasing gift, I would recommend the Resurrection Aromatique Handwash. Every time your gift recipient uses it, or spies it next to their sink, they will sigh with pleasure and think of you with fondness for bringing it into their life.

What are your recommendations for ethical gift-giving?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cheap fashion - what does it cost?

We have an insatiable appetite for cheap fashion. I've heard friends say, "This store is great for throwaway clothes." I've seen fashion magazine covers scream, "Guilt-free buys under $20." I've seen a lifestyle journalist comment (repeatedly) that fashion purchases are so cheap, they're "practically free."

These comments assume that the only cost of cheap fashion is the cost to our wallets and that the only reason we may feel guilty about purchasing cheap fashion is that we're spending our potential savings or racking up more credit. The Australian mainstream media today ran a "cheap fashion" story, with the long (and poorly punctuated) title "The twin test: One twin is wearing a $199 Cue dress the other is in a $50 Target dress. Can you tell the difference?" The focus of the article was the aesthetic differences between the two dresses - the fit, the cut and the feel of the fabric. While mention was made of the country of manufacture (the $199 dress is made in Australia by an accredited Ethical Clothing Australia brand, whereas the cheaper dress is a cotton/elastane mix and was made in China), no comment was made about the possible implications for labour conditions.

One reason the "Twin Test" article resonated so much with me today is that it was juxtaposed against the horrific news of more than one hundred deaths in a factory fire in Bangladesh. Twelve of those people died after jumping from windows to escape the fire (due to a lack of emergency exits). I'm not trying to suggest that the cheap Target dress in the article above is linked to factory worker deaths, or even that Target uses factories with unsafe labour practices and conditions. Target Australia, like many big brands, has an Ethical Sourcing Code, which is very easy to find and download from their website. This is self-monitored, as per the guidebook to their code:

"Target will monitor compliance with this Code, and we, or our representatives, may visit factories to ensure compliance with this policy. Any violations of our Code will be reported to the vendor for follow up and corrective action. Vendors are required to cooperate with the entire process. Where there are egregious violations and/or the vendor/factory does not demonstrate a willingness to comply, Target reserves the right to discontinue business with the vendor/factory."

This monitoring seems pretty wishy-washy to me. They "may" visit factories to ensure compliance, they "reserve the right to discontinue business" in the case of "egregious violations." I'm not trying to pick on (or target) Target in particular. I only mention them because they are featured in the "Twin Test" article and I thought they would be fairly representative of other big Australian retailers. (Out of interest, I spent a few minutes searching the Myer and David Jones website but was unable to find any ethical sourcing policy, just mentions of their philanthropic works. K Mart has an Ethical Sourcing Code, similarly worded to Target's, which is unsurprising as they are both subsidiaries of the same company. I could not find a similar policy on Big W's website.)

What I am saying is that our appetite for cheap fashion, and retailers' desire to feed that appetite, means that manufacturers have to produce garments more and more cheaply. This inevitably means that somewhere along the line, corners are cut, and the least empowered workers are the ones who ultimately suffer. Most (nearly all) big labels and chain stores out-source the production of their garments to third parties. This way, when disasters such as today's factory fire occur, the label can protect their brand name and wash their hands by severing their ties with that factory and condemning its unsafe practices.

How do you ensure that the people who made your fashion did so in a safe working environment, under fair conditions? Unfortunately, this sort of information does not appear on a clothing label along with the washing instructions. There is nothing to distinguish whether it was made in a "good" or "bad" factory. When I'm in a store and spot clothing I like, the first thing I look for is the place of manufacture (yes, even before the price). Unless it's made locally or fair trade, I will avoid it. Individual items of clothing may be more expensive but I am buying far fewer clothes than previously. The only way to ensure that workers are treated fairly is for consumers to demand it and to be willing to pay more for fashion that is produced under better conditions.

Even the "Twin Test" article concedes, " clothing can often cost more in the end because enthusiastic bargain-hunters buy more items than they really need." It's a pity the more important, human, cost is not mentioned.

As usual, this post is longer than I intended, with half the content. Another post on this topic, and a page with reading suggestions, coming soon!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Buy Nothing Day

Today was Buy Nothing Day. I bought nothing. I feel that I cheated a little, in that I didn't go near any retail or entertainment districts. However, yesterday I did brave the one day sale "event" of the big department store here in Perth. Whereas in previous years I would have fallen victim to heavy discounts on electronics, manchester, luggage, cosmetics and fashion, yesterday I just felt a bit ill about joining in the consumer frenzy and accumulating more stuff. I am finding it very easy to avoid buying new clothes, as I am currently reading To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? by Lucy Siegle, about the environmental and human costs of garment production - not only of cheap, "fast fashion" labels but also of luxury brands.  I thought I already had pretty strict criteria for new clothing and accessory purchases (ethically made in Australia, made in a developed country or fair trade) but reading about the cotton and leather industries has put me off completely. 

Even staying away from stores today, I was bombarded via my RSS feeder to SAVE SAVE SAVE in online Black Friday sales from the USA. Black Friday sales occur in the USA (and even Canada) on the day after American Thanksgiving - Friday 23rd November this year. (Buy Nothing Day coincides with Black Friday in North America, as opposed to other countries where it is held on Saturday.) This year, some big businesses commenced their Black Friday sales on Thursday (Thanksgiving). The Seattle Times interviewed some people who left their family celebrations early to line up for sales (probably to buy gifts for the same family members they've abandoned with the cold turkey). Consumers will have a little time to rest up over the weekend before the onslaught of Cyber Monday online sales (an event that Australia's big retailers tried, and failed, to emulate this week with "Click Frenzy" aka #ClickFail).

Buy Nothing Day is not the only protest against Black Friday. As I mentioned in my previous post, Occupy Christmas is a movement to encourage consumers to purchase from local, independent designers and retailers, instead of "big box" retailers and global brands. Small Business Saturday, the day following Black Friday, also encourages North American consumers to patronise their local businesses. (It was founded in 2010 by American Express - think what you will about that.)

Online lifestyle retailer Holstee are promoting the idea of Block Friday to replace Black Friday, encouraging consumers to be mindful of how they spend their money and "seizing an important chance to spend quality time with friends, loved ones, and ourselves". True to their word, Holstee take their store offline on Black Friday, to allow their staff to spend time with loved ones. (Discovered via Unconsumption.)

This year on Black Friday, there were multiple demonstrations outside Walmart stores, protesting for better wages and conditions for Walmart's employees. You can support them here via the Story of Stuff site. Time will tell whether pay and benefits for employees of America's big retailers, many of whom live under the poverty line, will improve.

As for me, I will be following up Buy Nothing Day by attending local handmade design markets tomorrow, followed by a community street festival. I don't think my wallet will stay closed for long but at least the purchases will be thoughtful.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Occupy Christmas

A wise colleague told me earlier this year that we must "decry the rampant materialism" that has led to individualism.

The local TV news last night reported that there are 39 days until Christmas, then warned those us who have not commenced Christmas shopping that we had better start now. They also reported that residents of my state (Western Australia) are expected to spend $5 billion this Christmas (based on this report by the Australian Retailers Association). While I don't begrudge local retailers and producers a living, I do wonder how many Christmas gifts, decorations, cards and other purchases will end up in the bin long before next Christmas rolls around.

In 2012, Saturday November 24th is Buy Nothing Day. I first heard about BND via Adbusters magazine, which I used to read in Borders on Oxford Street. (Appropriately, I never purchased it.) BND is a protest against consumerism. It will be nearly impossible for most people reading this blog to buy nothing for one day because most of us are continuously paying things like rent, mortgage, insurance, utilities, education fees, phone bills and so on. However, it is possible to plan your day so you are not buying any food, drinks, fuel or "stuff" on BND.

A variation on BND is Occupy Christmas. This movement encourages us to purchase locally produced goods from independent retailers. Visit design markets, small independent stores and farmers markets and you won't be disappointed.

Will you give Buy Nothing Day or Occupy Christmas a go? I've found that participating in Buy Nothing New Month is still having a positive influence on my purchasing patterns.

I leave you with the words of the "world's poorest president", Jose Mujica of Uruguay, who decries the model of consumption in rich countries. He is interviewed in yesterday's BBC News Magazine:

"I'm called 'the poorest president', but I don't feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more. This is a matter of freedom. If you don't have many possessions then you don't need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself. I may appear to be an eccentric old man... But this is a free choice."

Friday, November 2, 2012

Meat Eater

This is the first of a series of posts about food. My diet has changed considerably over the past few years, largely informed by various books and documentaries about food politics and food ethics. I postponed reading Peter Singer and Jim Mason's The Ethics of What We Eat until last year, concerned that it would "turn me vegan" (in the way that I was moved by Singer's The Life You Can Save). I admire my vegan friends but I'm still eating meat, despite compelling arguments against it and pretty unsubstantial arguments in support of it. Here I try to figure out why.

Growing up, I ate what was probably a standard Aussie diet - meat and two veg every evening and the occasional meat product in my lunchtime sandwich (although polony and chicken loaf are stretching the definition of "meat"). Typical dinner offerings from mum's kitchen included pork chops, lamb chops, spaghetti bolognese, fish fingers, grilled chicken wings and, for special occasions, steak and eggs. For most of my life, I felt that a lunch or dinner without meat was incomplete.

I remember the meat industry TV advertisements of my childhood. like the catchy "Get Some Pork on Your Fork" (and the less catchy "Pork - The Other White Meat"). There was the one featuring a before-she-was-famous Naomi Watts turning down dinner with Tom Cruise* because "Mum's doing a lamb roast." Then there was Sam the sexist butcher and the dorky Dad cooking an exotic beef stir-fry.

I don't notice as many meat ads now (except a dancing Sam Neill praising red meat for its "evolutionary benefits" and that angry racist lamb guy) but I guess the meat companies don't need to push themselves in TV ads because they can get to us through our voracious appetite for fast food and TV cooking shows. In the Masterchef All Stars Finale (one of the highest-rating TV shows in Australia), the first challenge was to cook a "family feast". When eventual winner Callum Hann announces that he is cooking a vegetarian feast (because his sister is a vegetarian and they always have vegetarian meals at family gatherings), some of the other contestants are incredulous (skip to 10:25 in this video). The judges eventually persuade him to cook a meat dish, insinuating that he cannot win if he cooks a vegetarian meal. I was very disappointed by this. Surely it would demonstrate superior skill to cook a vegetarian feast to satisfy fourteen meat-eating judges?

So, why should I meat? (Hmm...insert graphic of tumbleweed...crickets chirping too...)
  • Um, it tastes good and I enjoy it. Not a very convincing argument. 
  • I've heard arguments that farm animals will go extinct if we don't eat them - that seems pretty silly. Some of the animals that have been selectively bred to maximise meat production in the shortest lifespan have horrible, painful lives because of their bizarre anatomy. Also many non-farm animals are made extinct by clearing farmland to farm animals. 
  • Yes, meat is a good source of protein but most of us eat many times more meat than is required for adequate protein intake. A vegetarian diet can easily provide adequate protein.
  • One of the best arguments I've seen for (or at least to justify) meat eating is one by Jay Bost that won a reader competition in the New York Times earlier this year about the ethics of eating meat (and judged by some of my heroes including Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman and Peter Singer). He sums up the purpose of this entire blog post succinctly (had I known about it earlier, I might not have bothered).
I can think of many arguments against eating meat:
  • The cruelty (not just of killing animals but the inhumane conditions under which they are raised). 
  • The huge amount of water consumed, when millions of humans don't have access to clean water.
  • The huge amount of feed consumed, when millions of people are starving.
  • The massive amounts of pollution from factory farms.
  • The land cleared for farming.
  • The health benefits of a vegetarian diet.

My compromise is to eat less meat - once per week is my current target. I only eat organic or free range poultry, eggs and pig (which does not include "bred free range") and grass-fed beef. (Organic certification in Australia requires the animals to range freely on pasture.) I try to purchase this from farmers' markets, where I can talk directly to the farmer. My next aim is to visit some of the farms. When dining out, if the restaurant cannot guarantee the animal ingredients are free range then I stick to a vegetarian option.

I have not gone into seafood and non-farmed animals here - I'll save those for another time.

I have only been doing this for 18 months or so but I have found it easy to adhere to these rules and I find it has made my diet more interesting. I appreciate meat much more than I did previously. If I'm wavering over (non-free range) bacon and eggs on a breakfast menu, I just picture the cruel conditions under which these animals are raised.

Animals Australia recently launched a "Make It Possible" campaign to end factory farming, featuring (Australian) celebrities. You can take a pledge to refuse factory-farmed meat, eat less meat, go meat-free or donate to the cause.

*Younger readers: It is difficult to imagine but in the 1980s, dinner with Tom Cruise was considered a desirable prize for many women.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Buy Nothing New Month - The End

My first attempt at Buy Nothing New Month is over. During October, I didn't buy anything new except prescription medication. I didn't even buy any groceries, instead eating out with friends and using up items in my pantry. (I may have inadvertently stolen a banana but that is unrelated.) I made one second-hand purchase, a $5 book. I was given a vintage trunk by my aunt, which used to belong to my grandmother. Browsing through my bank and credit card statements for October, I paid for travel and transport (a hotel for next month, fuel, public transport), communication (phone and broadband bills), meals, mortgage, charity donations and membership of Doctors for the Environment.

What have I learnt from Buy Nothing New Month?

It was unexpectedly very easy. Only once did I regret not being able to buy something new - a painting at an art show. However, I don't have any wall space for new artworks (due to previous binge purchasing of art) and it was an expensive painting so it worked out for the best.

I have too much stuff. I could go the rest of my life without buying anything new and still have too much stuff. This is probably why I buy lots of gifts for my friends and family, who probably also have too much stuff.

I waste a lot of time browsing stores. This often leads to purchases. Multiple times throughout the month I passed by stores and considered going inside but decided against it. Had I not been participating in Buy Nothing New Month I probably would have gone in and ended up buying something. I found this liberating and found I had more spare time to do other things.

It is far more enjoyable to dine out with friends than to eat alone at home. I should do it more often and support my favourite local restaurants serving local, organic and free range foods. Conversely, instead of buying lunch at work I am going to use up all those leftover meals in the freezer.

I am on multiple email and SMS marketing lists for stores. I received, and deleted, multiple invitations to "secret" or short-term sales events, special events and free shipping deals. These are all local or independent stores selling ethically produced products so I'm not going to unsubscribe from the mailing lists but I will think twice about purchases and avoid impulse buying.

Instead of purchasing new (or even used) items, I should try to borrow them or source hand-me-downs from family and friends. I've lived in this city most of my life so I have a large network of family and friends that have also accumulated much stuff (especially as my parents have a tendency to hoard). I needed a phone for a teleconferences (my cordless phone only has a 40 minute battery life, which is shorter than most of my teleconferences) and instead of buying a new phone, I discovered that my parents have an old "dinosaur" model they're no longer using and could give me. I wanted a new kettle after my electric kettle died so my mother found their old stove-top kettle that I now actually prefer to an electric kettle. I needed a small piece of luggage for a week-long work trip and borrowed it from my father. My mother has since offered to buy me my own for Christmas but it's not something I'd use more than a few times a year so I declined.

Some "collaboration" websites shared by Buy Nothing New Month: share tools, appliances, musical instruments and more with neighbours find accommodation around the world free to list and free to take move stuff

When I told people (especially retail employees) about Buy Nothing New Month, they mostly reacted as if it was a hardship or punishment, consoling me with, "Oh, you poor thing!" I didn't find it that way at all. I found that it liberated my time, my money and my creativity. I definitely want to try it again in future for longer than a month.

If you'd like to try buying nothing, November 24th, 2012, is Buy Nothing Day. It requires more planning than Buy Nothing New Month but is still very achievable. More about that closer to the date!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What I buy at the supermarket & how I "Shop Ethical!"

I'm a strong proponent of voting with my wallet. This is a general post about how I do that at the supermarket. There are many product categories available at supermarkets, each deserving of its own post (or series of posts) that I'll cover in future. These include food, toiletries and cosmetics, cleaning products, pharmaceuticals, clothing and textiles, and more.

I feel the two big supermarket chains in Australia have a real duopoly. (Gosh! I just googled it and Maggie Beer agrees in this article published online 30 minutes ago.) The "big two" lure us in with loyalty programs, loss leaders and discount fuel offers. They're big pushers of tobacco, alcohol and gambling. I try to shop at independent supermarkets, farmers markets, greengrocers, butchers and other independent retailers. When I do shop at the "fresh food people" or "down, down, prices are down" I'm careful to choose brands and products that I want to encourage them to stock more - local, Australian owned, organic and fair trade products. These products are usually found on the bottom or top shelf or inexplicably (in the case of organic hot chocolate and instant coffee), the "health food" aisle.

Making choices at the supermarket can be overwhelming. Packaged products are covered with all sorts of misleading labels trying to convince us of their health or environmental benefits. Marshmallows are "99% fat free"! Likewise, many "natural" products are neither healthy for us nor the environment. Many iconic Australian brands, like Vegemite and Tim Tams, are no longer Australian-owned. You may be boycotting Nestlé but not realise that they own Connoisseur ice cream (I can attest to this; the logo is very subtle).

One tool to assist supermarket decision-making is the Shop Ethical! app or its hardware form, the Guide to Ethical Supermarket Shopping book. I used the book before I had a smartphone but I find the app more convenient. I also get less weird stares from fellow shoppers. The app allows you to search for products via brand name or category. For each product, it offers information such as ownership, number of Australian employees, any boycotts, scores on various ethical shopping profiles, environmental pros and cons, treatment of employees and other ethical considerations. For each product, there is also an overall recommendation and you can quickly scroll through these for each product category. You can "favourite" products for quick reference.

I do not blindly follow the recommendations in the guide (eg sometimes I buy Green & Black organic cocoa, even though it is owned by Cadbury) but in most cases I agree with the recommendations and it makes my supermarket shopping much easier. If you don't follow the overall recommendations of the guide, there is enough information (and hyperlinks) to assist you in making your own decision about individual products.

Further reading:

Ethical Consumer Guide - the not for profit organisation responsible for the Shop Ethical! app
Dick Smith's Magazine of Forbidden Ideas "Censored by the Murdoch Press!"
Ausbuy, Australian Owned and Australian Made
Fair Trade Association, Australia and New Zealand
Australian Made, Australian Grown
Choice magazine's survey on country of origin labelling

This blog post is purely based on my opinion. I do not have any financial stakes in any of the companies or brands recommended and I am not affiliated with them, other than being a consumer.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How I save lives (and not by being a doctor)

I recently read somewhere (I can't remember where but I promise it's true) that we should not be modest about what we donate to charity but instead share the information (and our reasons for donating) so that others are shamed inspired to also donate what they can afford.

The "Charitable Giving Index" published today by the NAB (one of Australia's "big four" banks) analysed charitable donations made by credit card, BPAY or EFTPOS. Charities were divided into seven categories, with "Humanitarian Services" charities (such as World Vision, Oxfam and Red Cross) receiving the largest portion of donations (32%), followed by "Community Services and Children/Family", "Other", "Medical Research and Services", "Health and Disability", "Cancer" and "Animals and Environment".

The analysis also looked at the average charity spend per person by their postcode, looking at donations in dollar terms and as percentage of taxable income. The top 10 postcodes (i.e. those with the highest rate of donations as a percentage of taxable income) from my state, Western Australia , donated just 0.13% of their taxable income. This was worse than any other state or territory in Australia. Obviously, there are limitations to the analysis (eg cash donations aren't included nor are donations of time or services) but at face value, we residents of the boom state of WA can do much better.

Reading Peter Singer's book The Life You Can Save in 2009 motivated me to increase my personal charitable donations. Singer argues that we have a moral obligation to help solve world poverty. The premise is that most of us would not walk past a drowning person without trying to save them, but we allow thousands of impoverished people to die through our passivity, when we could save lives by donating a proportion of our income. (The Life You Can Save website offers suggestions as to the proportion of income you should donate, based on your income and country of residence.) Now, whenever I consider a purchase, I think to myself, "Could I do better by donating this money to humanitarian causes?" I'm far from perfect as I could definitely do more, I still have many treats, holidays and frivolous purchases, and I come from the privileged position of having a comfortable income, not having student debts and not having any dependents.

Since reading The Life You Can Save I have donated at least 5% of my income to charity, increasing the amount each year. This includes regular monthly donations to five charities (including Oxfam, MSF, Red Cross, Amnesty and a sponsor child) and one-off donations to other appeals, such as for disaster relief or if an acquaintance is fundraising for a particular cause (such as One Girl's Do It In A Dress). Not all of my donations go to humanitarian causes (some are medical charities such as the Cancer Council). I also donate to arts charities and scholarships at my university but do not include these in my 5% target. Sometimes, I may feel that I'm throwing money at charities to alleviate my First World guilt (or my lack of hands-on contributions to charities) but every bit helps and even one life saved or made more comfortable makes it worthwhile.

I'll do a longer post on The Life You Can Save (and its evidence-based suggestions as to which charities you should donate) in the future but for now will leave you with these reasons why I donate to charity:
  1. I can improve more lives indirectly through supporting humanitarian charities than I can directly through working as a doctor;
  2. It is wrong not to; and
  3. It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling.

Take The Life You Can Save pledge along with 14 000 other people.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Buy Nothing New Month - Resources

Following yesterday's post about Buy Nothing New Month, here are a few links to help get started:
There are many more resources online - please share them in the comments!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Buy Nothing New Month

"We used to build civilizations. Now we build shopping malls."

"Consumers have not been told effectively enough that they have huge power and that purchasing and shopping involve a moral choice."


"Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like."


"People used to die of consumption. Then it went from being a fatal disease to a way of life"

"Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need." 


This October I am participating in Buy Nothing New Month, a movement for collective, conscientious consumption that began in Australia's shopping capital, Melbourne.  I have pledged to buy nothing new this month, with the exception of food, drink and medications. I am allowed to buy second-hand goods and first-hand experiences. There are several reasons I decided to make the pledge. Firstly, to protest the rampant materialism that infests the developed world, making us selfish and numbing us to the plight of those who have less and those who suffer producing all our "stuff". Secondly, to raise awareness amongst my friends and colleagues about our wasteful lifestyles. Thirdly, to remind myself that just because something is ethically produced, it does not give me an excuse to buy it.

As someone who enjoys shopping (I will even confess to reading the inelegantly named Shop Til You Drop magazine), I thought that Buy Nothing New Month would be difficult. (I am particularly vulnerable to anything that's locally made, fair-trade, well-designed and from one of my favourite local independent stores - a particularly wanky kind of conspicuous consumption, I guess.) However, it has proven very easy thus far. 

I thought that a weekend in Melbourne would be particularly challenging. Happily, I enjoyed my spare time dining with friends and colleagues and browsing the small galleries and second-hand stores of Fitzroy. My single non-food, non-transport purchase of the month is a 1946 edition of George Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma, from antique and vintage store 84 Smith Street. I've wanted to read this play for a while (it advocates doctors being paid a fixed salary, without any financial incentive to offer unnecessary treatment to patients - more on that another time) and I was very pleased to find it for five dollars.

I thought that a friend's birthday gift might prove difficult but I found a gift that I had bought for him a couple of years ago and forgotten about (I have a drawer full of such purchases), which I delivered to him in Melbourne, wrapped in some reused tissue paper. The Buy Nothing New movement also suggests gifting experiences or second-hand goods (like antique jewellery)!

Although I have bought food when I'm eating out, for meals at home I've tried to use up things in my pantry that would otherwise probably sit there until they were inedible. Brinjal pickle with wholemeal couscous was quite tasty (although somewhat lacking in greens). 

One thing I've observed is that when I stay at a hotel I am impeccable, aided by the small number of items I have with me. For the recent weekend in Melbourne, I used a handbag for luggage. For four days working in the Pilbara, a tiny wheeled suitcase was more than sufficient. This is in contrast to my cluttered, chaotic home, which is full of gifts I've never given, art I've never hung, books I've never read, DVDs I've never watched, stationery I've never used, half-empty toiletries, clothes I've forgotten I own, unused craft supplies, CDs I've never played, alcohol that has sat on the shelves for years (scandalous, I know), and unnecessary multiples of so many items that I couldn't name them all. During a particularly decadent phase a few years ago, I would buy new clothes when I ran out of clean clothes to wear to work. I didn't even realise I was doing it until my mother pointed it out to me.

What have I learned from Buy Nothing New Month so far? I've become more aware of things I want to purchase, don't really need, but justify by telling myself that I'm supporting a small business or an ethical producer. I've become more creative with food and outfit choices. I've picked native flowers from my mother's garden instead of buying bunches from the florist that usually die within a few days. I've been catching up on some of those unread books. I've halted the ridiculous flood of gifts for my 10-week-old niece. At no time have I thought twice about something I didn't buy, or rued a lost opportunity. I haven't wasted any time browsing department stores. I chose vintage stores over the discount mall patronised by my colleagues when we were in Melbourne.

I think I need to extend Buy Nothing New Month into Buy Nothing New Quarter. That would provide a real challenge and force new behaviours, such as joining the library, using up those craft and baking supplies for the holiday period, finishing those unread books, "shopping the closet" and getting old shoes repaired. I would spend more time creating, spending time with family, making my way through the never-ending "To Do" list and not accumulating stuff.

Who wants to join me?

See Part 2 for Buy Nothing New resources

Quotations above via Buy Nothing New Month website 

Why live in the world...

Last century I had a blog called "Why live in the world..." Its name was from a line in the song  "Monday", by Pulp: "There's nothing to do/so you just stay in bed/why live in the world/when you can live in your head?" Pulp's Different Class was one of my most-played albums during my formative high school years and remains a favourite.

In my angst-ridden adolescence, I couldn't think of a decent reason to live in the world.  I've now learned that living in the world far exceeds what is in my head, and that life, and the world, can be infinitely improved through engagement of like-minded people.

In this blog I will share some of my attempts to live ethically. I tend to agonise over every decision I make - whether what to do, what not to do, what to buy, how best to ration my time, what to recommend to others. I even bought the Rough Guide to Ethical Living a few years ago. I have not formally studied ethics, save for some rudimentary lectures in university. What I write here will be based on my reading, personal experiences and constant internal struggles to decide what is right. My opinion comes from the place of privilege: the privilege of being born in Australia; of never being seriously ill; of having loving, supportive parents and sister; of attending a great (public) high school and university; of never knowing unemployment or poverty; and of always having choices.

I hope that sharing my thoughts will help me make decisions and engage others in discussions about ethical choices and ethical living.